Saturday, September 7, 2019

Kudos, Isro scientists!

Fifteen minutes of anxiety-filled moments late last night.

Those were the 15 moments when scientists of Isro, the Indian Space Research Organisation, would make complex manoeuvres from their earth station in Bengaluru to guide Vikram, the unmanned, robotic lander, into making a soft landing on the south pole of the moon around 1.50 am -- a feat no one had achieved so far.

Three of my colleagues and I were glued to the live transmission.

1.35 am. Vikram began its descend and the scientists were reducing the speed progressively, in order to enable the soft landing of Vikram, the lander, on the moon.

Close to 1.50 am, everything seemed to be going perfectly well, just about a couple of minutes or so for the touchdown. Fingers crossed.


But then as moments passed, the cheerful faces of scientists in the mission control room seemed to be filled with anxiety. There was silence, and an announcement came on the air that we were awaiting further updates.

We saw the chairman of Isro K Sivan walking up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi (who was at the tracking station in Bengaluru to witness the event). Moments later Modi got up and left the room after telling Sivam something and patting him on the back.

We got to hear that the communication from the lander had snapped. Many feared that either the lander had crashlanded because the speed of the descent couldn't be reduced to the required level or Vikram had landed but we hadn't got to know about it since the communication was off. 

Around 2.15 am, Sivan made an official announcement that the communication got snapped when the lander was 2.1 km from the surface of the moon and all the data are being analysed.

No one had yet said that the lander had crashed. But that was what it looked like.


Nevertheless, this was a mission that nearly succeeded. Only three nations -- the US, Russia and China -- have so far managed to land an unmanned craft on the moon. And that too after many failed attempts. The success rate of such efforts has been just around 40%.

No nation had landed a craft on the south pole, an area where scientists believe has minerals and water.

Yet, the fact that Indian scientists made this attempt and managed to get the lander as close to the moon as 2.1 km is indeed a great achievement.

The entire capsule called Chandrayaan 2 -- orbiter, the lander and the rover -- was launched on July 22.  On August 14, it left the Earth's orbit, and it entered the moon's orbit on August 20.

Meanwhile, the orbiter is still going around the moon and the payloads on it are working well.


The Prime Minister was all praise for the scientists when he returned to the command centre this morning and spoke to them for nearly half an hour. "This was an experiment, and we make progress with experiments. We are with you," he said.

We will know in the coming days as to what exactly happened and why the lander couldn't make the soft landing as planned.

To say that failure is the stepping stone to success sounds a bit cliched. But that's a fact. No one has ever succeeded in doing, especially very complex tasks, without a few failures. And space is a complex and challenging area. Everything is remotely controlled.

Space explorations and the success of the scientific community the world over is what has given us many comforts -- from modern communication technologies to our ability to understand the climate patterns, helping us understand our earth better.



Destination Infinity said...

Failure in itself is no big feat. I don't want to join the bandwagon of ppl praising ISRO just because they attempted to do something no one has done before. Had they self-funded the entire thing with their revenue, that's different. But this is public money and they are accountable.

What's even more shocking is the objective of the mission. How is finding water or minerals on the moon going to help anyone here? Why is no one questioning the Govt. on why these expensive space crafts are being sent? Is there a long-term objective at least?

Destination Infinity

KParthasarathi said...

I was watching the landing manoeuvre till the announcement was made. Very cogently and nicely written post.
Thank you.

Vallypee said...

Fascinating, I can imagine, but dare I ask what the point of this is?

Liz A. said...

Eeek. So close. But every failure is one step towards a future success. They'll learn what went wrong so they won't make that mistake again.

Pradeep Nair said...

Hi Rajesh,

No experiment or mission is a failure, even if the final objective is not met. That's because one learns a lot during the entire process.

The Chandrayaan 2 project hasn't failed. Eight of the 13 payloads are in the orbiter and they are functioning well.

There is a business arm of Isro that brings in money to the organisation. So, they make some money themselves. Like any other institution, at Isro too there is an audit of where the money is going and what we are getting in return.

In fact, it's not easy for the Isro to get the government funds; they have a lot of explaining to do. And like all government organizations, there is tightening of the belt there too.

There might not be any direct impact of the results of these experiments on our lives. But there are a lot of indirect benefits, in the short-term as well as in the long-term, in scientific terms, from what our scientists learn; a lot of which are also shared with the scientists in other countries too.

Leave aside the scientific stuff, the way this mission has fired the imagination of young minds and sparked their spirit to excel in the face of tough odds is phenomenal.

In missions like this world over, there is a whole lot of scientific and technological knowledge that is used and also a lot of information that is gained.

It's not just about the water and minerals in the south pole of the moon -- but the entire software, hardware, and multitude of scientific theories (in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology) that are used not just in space exploration but also in many allied fields that are applied on earth.

After all, a lot of what is applied in space-bound projects is an extrapolation of what is applied in earth-bound projects.

Also, our environment is not just the space in our immediate surroundings. But also the entire universe.


Hi KP,

Owing to social media and the consequent publicity this mission got, unlike earlier ones, there was tremendous excitement about this, especially among the youngsters. Very heartening to see that.


Hi Vallypee,

I have partly answered your questions in my first answer. I shall add this:

The main objective of the Chandrayaan 2 mission (a sequel to the Chandrayaan 1) is to probe not just the south pole of the moon (an area where no one has ventured so far) but also to learn a lot more about the moon and impact on the earth that we live in.

On another level, the experiment helps the scientists to learn not just about the moon but also more about the theories that are applied in space-bound missions, which are nothing but extrapolations of what is applied in earth-bound projects.

In a wider sense, these extremely daunting, tough and challenging experiments also encourage us not to give up in the face of adversity but strive harder to succeed. The work that is done by Nasa scientists, for example, is so inspirational.


Hi Liz,

Yes, the scientists -- not just in India, but the world over who are following this amazing experiment -- are learning a lot. One, like you said, they will succeed the next time, and two, what they learn will also have applications in other areas.

SG said...

I like your reply to Destination Infinity (Rajesh).

SG said...

Just now read something. Wanted to share with you and all your readers:

Some countries have moon on their flags. Some countries have their flats on the moon.

SG said...

Sorry typo. Some countries have their flags on the moon.

Vallypee said...

Thanks so much for your response. I think I understand why it is so inspiring now and I totally understand people's fascination with space. I just have this feeling that there are so many areas on earth that could do with the kind of investment used in space exploration. I find it hard to reconcile the cost with the reward, but that's just me. All the same, these are exciting developments!

Pradeep Nair said...

Hi SG,
I too saw that making the rounds on social media.

Hi Vallypee,
Thank you for the comment. You are right, and I do agree with you.
I hope all that massive investment is worth it, and we all gain someday from it.

Darla M Sands said...

I agree space exploration is important. ~nods~ That 40% success rate surprised me. Thank you for sharing.